Moving a Local Success Story from ‘Good to Great’

Hanging on the wall in Doug Samuels’ office is a framed quote by ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that reads: “As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate. When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”

It’s this business philosophy and line of thinking that embodies the leadership style of Samuels, the modest, yet intensely driven president and CEO of Brevard County’s largest member-owned financial cooperative, Space Coast Credit Union (SCCU), which offers financial services for households and businesses.

“What I like about SCCU is that the credit union has grown up with the community,” says Samuels, who originally joined SCCU in 1991 as the vice president of information technology. “When SCCU was chartered (originally as Patrick Air Force Base Credit Union), there was not much here. But as the space program expanded, the communities in Brevard County grew, and the credit union grew to meet the needs of the community.”

Because of this deep-rooted connection to the area it has served since 1951, SCCU has been successful at growing and evolving to meet the needs of its members, who, Samuels is quick to point out, are the true owners of the organization.

Staying Focused on the Mission Samuels’ belief, which SCCU’s mission statement mirrors, is that the credit union is only successful when the managers and employees succeed in generating value that reflects the cooperative ownership structure. And it’s because of this fact that, chances are, unless you’re an employee or member of SCCU, you’ve never heard of Samuels in a professional capacity – and that’s just the way he intends it to be.

“It’s not about me, it’s about our members,” explains Samuels, who, with characteristics such as personal humility, professional will and ambition for the organization above all else, virtually personifies a “Level 5” leader as described in Jim Collins’ best-selling book, Good to Great.

“Our members are our owners, and we must always keep that fact in focus,” he says. “Understanding that we have a responsibility to solely meet the needs of our members keeps us grounded and focused and helps us to avoid undue risk.”

Getting It, Doing It, Sharing It at SCCU

Accordingly, SCCU’s board of directors, managers and employees pay relentless attention to accountability, performance and efficiency – three areas in which Samuels believes SCCU excels. He describes SCCU’s corporate culture as “straightforward and accountable” in an effort to diminish the room for error. That said, it’s no surprise that the employee-performance bar at SCCU is set high. In an effort to “narrow the front door” to only those who possess the aptitude to “get it, do it and share it” – the three core employee characteristics sought by SCCU’s managers – the applicant-screening process is rigorous. In fact, on average over the past four years, SCCU hired only 1.03 percent of its total number of applicants.

“In determining these core employee characteristics, we asked ourselves, ‘Who are the successful people in the company and what traits do they possess that we want to clone?’” says Samuels. “We found that the common characteristics of good employees were those who understood the value of their work (get it), are action-oriented and up for a challenge (do it) and can communicate information with an understanding that everyone is accountable to each other (share it).”

And at SCCU, aptitude screenings don’t stop at the door. Specifically, all employees are subject to monthly performance reviews to encourage frequent coaching between managers and employees, and allow high-performing employees to receive incentives, such as pay raises and promotions, on a regular basis. “Smart people doing smart things,” is what it all boils down to, according to Samuels.

Effective and Efficient

Working to improve operational efficiencies to best serve the unique needs of its members also is a primary focus of SCCU.

An example of this is the credit union’s Express Services, which was put in place in 1997 to serve members who have high demands on their time. While it’s typical for an individual to wait 30 to 40 minutes in a branch to apply for new loans or accounts, with SCCU’s Express Services the wait time is nearly eliminated. Using personal phones or Express Services phones located in each SCCU branch, existing and potential members can open deposit accounts, apply for first mortgages and apply for loans in minutes. “It’s all about saving time,” says Samuels.

“What members gain from the Express process is significant time savings and a consistent level of service delivery,” adds Meredith Gibson, senior vice president of marketing. “The Express associates are experienced in listening for the need and recommending the appropriate product or service solution.”

Other initiatives SCCU has implemented over the years includes various member rewards and discounts programs; a “watchdog” program that allows members to generate unbiased ratings and reviews of their experiences with SCCU; and a program called “eWays to Win,” which offers incentives for utilizing the company’s online banking services; as well as multiple community outreach and donation programs.

The Merger

Over the past year, SCCU has undergone the largest and, by most accounts, the most complex, strategic move in its history to benefit its members. On June 30, 2009, the organization merged with Eastern Financial Florida Credit Union resulting in a consolidated organization that is now the third largest credit union in Florida, serving over 360,000 members with $3.2 billion in assets through a network of 63 branches and 145 ATMs spanning nearly the entire I-95 corridor and its surrounding communities.

The merger was executed by a total of 120 employees organized into 19 teams each with a specific focus and each consisting of employees from both credit unions. To ensure all operational aspects were taken into consideration, each team included technical, management and front-line employees. Overall, it is estimated that by May 3, 2010, the date the integration was completed, over 250,000 labor hours were spent converting and consolidating the two entities.

While Samuels admits that in the short-term the merger has been disruptive, he believes in the long-term it will provide better operational efficiencies, and because SCCU is a not-for-profit, also will allow the organization to offer better returns to its members. “There are some compelling strategic benefits to the credit union in doing the merger,” says Samuels. “By combining two similar organizations we will be able to achieve economies of scale that we would not have been able to realize otherwise. We have geographic diversity, which after the storms of 2004, was very important to us. We also have economic diversity which insulates us from ups and downs in a single county’s economy.”

Growth as an Outcome, not a Goal As the dust settles for the existing and new SCCU employees post-merger, Samuels reflects on the efforts of his team and says he is “proud” of all they accomplished. As for further growth in the future, SCCU’s president believes that will happen only as a natural consequence of getting things right.

“If we continue to be convenient, relevant and efficient for our members, growth happens,” he says. “The focus of growth, expansion and big business has been the downfall of many organizations. We understand that we are no better than our last transaction, and that a focus on expansion is usually ego or pride driven. And pride…goeth before the fall.”